Doubling Down on Virtual Reality
Valve and HTC join the fray, Sony has a release window; VR is on the way, but is a damaging standards war looming?
It is, at last, a technology that has come of age. After countless false starts, one of the most dearly held dreams of computer technology appears to be on the brink of fulfilment; high quality, immersive virtual reality, on hardware priced for ordinary consumers. It's been a long wait and a curious path; a great many pioneers tried to launch VR hardware long before computers and displays were capable of the kind of fidelity and refresh rates required for an experience of acceptable quality, with one famous example in the gaming world being Nintendo's ill-fated Virtual Boy. Yet now, it's so close we can almost taste it, with headsets from no fewer than four serious players on display at conferences over the past week.
The time is unquestionably right. Many of the technological innovations which make VR possible today are thanks to the extraordinary success of smartphones over the past few years. High-resolution displays have improved in quality and fallen enormously in price; motion tracking systems have received similar attention. Much of the focus regarding graphics technology has switched away from the high-end arms race and towards the mobile space, with astounding new technology allowing GPUs which only a few years ago required separate power supplies and giant cooling fans to be fitted into the space of a fingernail inside a svelte smartphone. All of these advances feed directly into the viability of VR; at their most basic, the VR headsets being created today are essentially smartphones mounted in front of your face, with some clever lenses to create an illusion of immersion.
"If one of the companies launches a flawed product, the message the public receives is unlikely to be 'this specific product is bad', but rather, 'VR still sucks - give it another decade'"
Yet before we all get caught up in dreams of the Star Trek holodeck, plenty of tough problems remain. There's the question of how we control our experience in VR; conventional console-style gamepads only get you so far. A variety of different and competing visions of VR control systems have been proposed, from an interesting adaptation of Sony's thus-far under-utilised Move controllers through the hand-mapping capabilities of the Leap Motion controller, to the almost certainly impractical notion of walking around in the physical world in order to move around the virtual environment - a concept which is remarkable if only for the truly incalculable number of accidents waiting to happen. There's also the question of motion sickness, which Valve claims to have solved but which may yet create a stigma around the whole technology; and there's the tricky question of what experiences people actually want to have in VR, and how games need to change in order to be compelling and enjoyable in such an immersive environment.
There may also be a very practical hurdle to VR adoption - the dark possibility of a serious standards battle. It's unclear, as yet, just how big the market for VR is going to be in the first place. There is almost certainly a low ceiling on the percentage of the population who are willing to strap a cumbersome VR headset to their faces, cut themselves off from the real world and engage in virtual adventuring on a regular basis, but if the experience is compelling and the content is great, that ceiling will slowly rise. Given that innate market challenge, though, it's a bit worrying that we're seeing such a wide range of technological choices in the headsets coming to market, with Oculus, Sony and now Valve (with Samsung as a peculiar offshoot of Oculus' tech) all taking quite different approaches to important aspects of the technology.
If this simply results in healthy competition, with consumers able to choose the technology they like best from among the different systems on offer, then that's great. There are, however, two alternative scenarios which must be avoided. The first of those is that the technologies are so disparate - or the marketing approaches of the companies involved so anti-competitive - that they end up either making it hard for developers to support multiple headsets, or pay them money not to support competitors. Either of those things would spark off a standards war which would likely dampen enthusiasm for the entire VR experiment; while some early adopters will pick a side, the majority of consumers, even among the relatively hardcore, will be put off buying anything at all by the possibility of a standards war obsoleting their new hardware before its time. "I'll wait until it's all sorted out" is a common consumer reaction to standards wars; the onus is upon the rival headset manufacturers to make it reasonably clear that while they clearly believe their own hardware to be superior, they're in favour of software being available across all the different hardware so that consumers can make a free choice.
"The reality is that while these companies may be competitors in theory, they all gain from VR being widely adopted to rave reviews, and all lose out badly if the technology gets bad press at the outset"
The second scenario is that one or more of these rival headsets, to put a fine point on it, sucks - but gets enough marketing support to do some serious damage to the public perception of VR at a critical time in the technology's lifecycle. If any of these headsets turns out to cause serious motion sickness or to generally be awful or, worse, bad for the user's health, then this entire nascent sector is in trouble; the mainstream media loves nothing more than a juicy story about new high-tech innovations causing health problems. Consider how much mileage the media got out of the absolutely unsupported story about wi-fi signals causing headaches - a story which ran in some outlets repeatedly over the course of several years - and imagine what they'd do with footage of someone being violently ill while wearing a VR headset. Nuance gets lost in both media coverage and word of mouth around new tech; if one of the companies launches a flawed product, the message the public receives is unlikely to be "this specific product is bad", but rather, "VR still sucks - give it another decade".
This is not an unlikely scenario - indeed, it's likely enough that Valve is also worried about it, and is offering some of the technology it has developed to its rivals for free in order to try to avoid this kind of problem. While I don't think it's entirely likely that Sony will reciprocate (it's really not in the company's DNA, sadly), and I'm not sure how Facebook would feel about Oculus doing likewise, it will be a shame if the patent-free sharing of useful VR technology doesn't come to pass; the reality is that while these companies may be competitors in theory, they all gain from VR being widely adopted to rave reviews, and all lose out badly if the technology gets bad press at the outset.
The sheer buzz around VR at GDC this year is a testament to just how excited game developers are about this technology; along with the slow movement towards real VR devices aimed at consumers and sitting on store shelves (with early 2016 being the best guess for a real launch date for the consumer editions; Sony is committed to that and the others seem likely to be around the same time, though late 2015 is still being mooted optimistically in some corners), it's a clear sign that yes, this is happening, that both the technology and the content are aligning to create something long dreamed of. One thing we're not sure about being in alignment is the market. What makes developers excited may do little for consumers; witness the awful response Google Glass received from the market, to the extent of Glass users being outright pilloried. VR will probably have to start small and rely on the building of a buzz from core users to develop a wider market. The task of the coming year is to ensure that that buzz is a positive one, because a negative one could put this technology back in the realms of science fiction.